Year of release: 2017 Directed by Ben Wheatley. Starring Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Sharlto Copley, and Michael Smiley.
I thought Free Fire would be a fun, fast-paced, if violent, action film in which immoral characters exchange witty insults while revealing flickerings of their shared humanity. I was badly mistaken.
Free Fire supposedly has a run time of an hour and a half. I say supposedly, because I would have sworn I was sitting in the theater a lot longer than that. This thing slogs along through a black market gun deal gone wrong as slowly as the bullet ridden bodies drag themselves through the ultimate Mexican standoff which said deal devolves into. I forget at which point precisely this thought occurred to me, and I never imagined I would say this in my entire life; however, this film would have been a lot better had Quentin Tarantino directed it.
Tarantino making this film might have caused some new problems, namely the already nasty violence may have been slightly nastier (but only slightly), but on the other hand, it would have had a pulse, it would have had witty snappy dialogue, and it would have had characters we care about – or at least characters with memorably fascinating quirks, unlike the nondescript sacks of meat filling each other with lead that occupy the run time here.
Ben Wheatley directs a script he co-wrote with Amy Jump, and the two of them edit as well. I’m not entirely sure edit is the right word, because the incoherent jumble of images is nearly impossible to follow, especially as the script randomly throws new characters into the mix without ever wasting any time on trivialities such as character development. If the goal was to show it’s impossible to tell who’s shooting at whom, I suppose the film succeeds at that, but the aggressive editing doesn’t make us reflect on the cost of violence. Since it’s so much work to keep track of anything going on, it just makes it a relief when bullet bank #4 finally bites the dust – that’s one less thing to keep track of.
On the very light plus side, Armie Hammer actually manages to create a character from the practically non-existent material he’s given to work with. Brie Larson and Cillian Murphy come close as well.
At some point during pre-production, there was definitely a good idea about the dark humor of a ruthless Mexican standoff, with some worthy nods to themes of violence begetting violence and making it impossible to distinguish allies from foes. Sadly, it seems that was the first causality caught in the crossfires of this mess of a film.
Personal Recommendation: D+
Content Advisory: Graphic violence, some of it quite nasty, and frequent obscene language throughout.
Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment
Year of release: 2017 Directed by Bill Condon. Starring Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Josh Gad, Kevin Kline, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, and Audra McDonald.
That Beauty and the Beast, Disney’s latest live action adaptation of one of their animated classics, works as well as it does, is an impressive testament to the power and beauty of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s score, which is the main star of this movie.
After the success of the live action updates of Cinderella, The Jungle Book, and Pete’s Dragon, it was only a matter of time before Beauty and the Beast received the same treatment, especially considering there already was a successful Broadway musical based on the 1991 animated film. However, considering those three aforementioned films all notably broke with their far less than perfect predecessors, the 1991 animated Best Picture nominee is in many people’s opinion (including my own) the finest work of art that Disney has ever produced. As might be expected, director Bill Condon’s excessive reverence for the original results in a copying of the source material, which inevitably pales in comparison.
I do not mean to suggest that this Beauty and the Beast is bad; for the most part, I more or less enjoyed it, as needless as it was. The production design is exquisite; the cast is solid; and of course, Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s score sounds great with any decent performers.
In my mind, the biggest problem is that in addition to the unoriginal copying of the animated film, down to camera movements and costume design, is that the few times this film does break away and introduce something new, those changes are rarely for the better.
For instance, the film opens by acting out the entire prologue in which the Prince (Dan Stevens) is cursed and transformed into the Beast. While we get to see some lovely set design and hear Audra McDonald sing (more on that momentarily), seeing the Beast as a Prince undermines his ability to frighten us by turning him into something of a deserving victim. The notion that he’s a real monster, not just a monstrous person, heightens the Stockholm Syndrome element of the fairytale, and it also makes both his ultimate transformation and Belle’s heroism more dramatically satisfying.
Even the one good change from the original is undermined by later changes that should have been rejected in early drafts of the script, never mind being shot. Maurice (Kevin Kline) and Belle (Emma Watson) have a wonderfully supportive and intelligent relationship which starkly contrasts the bumbling old crackpot whom Belle supports in the original. However, in this film there is no possibility for the townspeople to say, “Crazy old Maurice,” which inspires Gaston’s devious plot to force Belle’s hand in marriage. Nonetheless, the film is beholden to that plot point, and the way in which it is now set up necessitates other changes to the original which are so evil and sinister that they seem jarringly out of place in a fairytale geared toward family audiences. To make things worse, those changes occur two scenes before the title number, which really impacts our ability to enjoy the gorgeously lush song.
Regarding the performance of the title song, Emma Thompson has an excellent voice, and while she unfortunately has to stand in the shadow of Angela Lansbury’s iconic performance, she proved herself capable of that when she played Mrs. Lovett in the NY Philharmonic production of Sweeney Todd three years ago. The more striking change, at least for me, was the decision to change the key of the song from the warm and rich D-flat major of the original to a cooler and higher pitched E-flat major. That’s the biggest difference, and probably the main reason many people will say the song is has less emotion here than it does in the original.
As to the rest of the cast, everyone gives their roles their all, even if all of them are outperformed by their counterparts in the original. Emma Watson is a fine singer, but she notably has the weakest voice of the entire cast, which is a little bit of a problem, considering she’s the lead. Her feminist portrayal of Belle comes across effortlessly. As Gaston, Luke Evans has a surprisingly good tenor, which is a notable change from Richard White’s baritone, and Evans makes the bullying malevolence of the villain even more apparent. Josh Gad’s fairly sympathetic portrayal of Le Fou is another break with the original, as is his overhyped “gay moment,” which consists of three fleeting sight gags about trite stereotypes.
The staff of the castle gives enjoyable vocal performances, even if their character design lacks imagination compared to the castle itself. Ian McKellen (Cogsworth) is a fitting curmudgeon, Ewan McGregor (Lumiere) has so much zeal in his performance that he overcomes his goofy French accent. Emma Thompson (Mrs. Potts) is enough of a comforting presence without copying Lansbury. Audra McDonald (the wardrobe) has by far and away the best voice of everyone (as to be expected), and it is a massively missed opportunity that she only has two brief verses to sing.
Finally, as the Prince and the Beast, Dan Stevens’ performance definitely lands more on the prince side of the character, which I think is problematic, because it weakens his transformation. Stevens has a very good baritone, and his performance of the Beast’s new solo, “Evermore” by Menken and Tim Rice, is haunting and beautiful. That performance, coupled with Josh Groban’s rendition over the end credits makes me fairly confident in saying that song will win the Oscar for best original song. It’s also a pretty great song which naturally fits into the original score.
As much as I would want to resent this film for being an uninspired attempt to replicate the original when there were so many possibilities to take this fairytale in a new direction, there’s enough good material that I have to give credit where credit is due and admit that the film was a mostly enjoyable rendition of the tale as old as time, even if it can’t hold a candle to Disney’s animated masterpiece.
Personal recommendation: B-
Content Advisory: A couple risqué sight gags, intense scenes of peril and menace. MPAA rating: PG
Suggested Audience: Teens and up
Year of release: 2016 Directed by Michael Dudok de Wit.
Every year there are films that get away, films that would have easily made your yearend “best of” list had you seen them in time, but due to late release dates or the crazy influx of new releases during the last months of the year get overlooked until a few months later. For me, The Red Turtle is such a film. I had been hoping to see it in time for it to be included in my 2016 yearend list, and while I do not believe in going back to re-edit top ten lists months after they were published, consider this review my note in favor of its inclusion.
The latest film from Studio Ghibli (My Neighbor Totoro, Grave of the Fireflies) is also the first one not to be produced in Japan. Dutch director and writer Michael Dudok de Wit takes the reins in crafting this gorgeous tale of loss, survival, and celebration of life. The narrative is propelled purely by the animation and the immersive soundscape, as de Wit wisely made the choice to have the film be dialogue-free.
From the first sound of the crashing waves and the imposing image of the blue-gray ocean peaks, the viewer is drawn into a remote world of beauty and danger. The nameless protagonist struggles against a sea storm to be crushed under the waves and thrown to shore. When he wakes up, he finds himself stranded on an island of bamboo trees, fresh fruit, springs of water, rocky summits overlooking the sea, and crabs, lots of crabs.
After surveilling the island, the man devises a plan to escape his Robinson Crusoe-esque fate. However, the island or the sea has other ideas. He quickly builds a bamboo raft and sails off, but the raft is almost immediately destroyed by a massive thud from a seemingly invisible creature. The second and third attempts are met with the same result.
When the man discovers the reason that he cannot leave the island, his anger is understandable, and the choice he makes as a result of that anger is likewise easy to understand. However, the immediate tragedy and loss of that choice is painfully acute, and the consequences of that loss overshadow the remainder of the film, for both good and ill. In the beautiful world of the film, the healing power of nature results in substantially more good than ill, which could be interpreted either as the power of the environment, or as the divinely ordered nature of creation healing any wrongs.
As the film gently unfolds its breathtaking cycle of life, death, destruction, and growth, I spent much of the time thinking about Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si. The connections between the ocean, the island, the man, the eponymous red turtle, and the crabs highlight the beauty in all of God’s creation and the way that they are dependent upon one another. Something that harms one harms all of them, and all of their lives are best when none attempt to thrive at the expense of the others.
The relationship of the red turtle to the man is, in my opinion, best left unspoiled. It’s not hard to deduce, but the precise nature of the relationship has an aura of mystery worth discovering as it is gradually revealed. It is essential to mention that the red turtle is the central catalyst which emphasizes the interconnectivity of all the different characters and creatures.
The simple 2D animations throughout the film give it a richness and poetry that is haunting and gorgeous. The vibrancy of the hues shifts from scene to scene, with grayer tints for scenes of disaster and brighter colors for scenes of hope. Finally, the dark red shell and fins of the turtle stand out magnificently from the blue, brown, and gray background which forms so much of the film.
It is wonderful to see Studio Ghibli expanding their distribution to include non-Japanese films; hopefully, there will be more thoughtful celebrations of life and beauty like The Red Turtle from other cultures as well.
Personal recommendation: A
Content Advisory: Mild peril, potentially upsetting scenes of loss.
Suggested Audience: Kids and up, provided they have long attention spans. MPAA rating: PG
For most of 2016, much like the cycle of depressing news regarding celebrity deaths and politics, cinematic prospects were pretty grim. The quality of films was markedly lower than the last two years, not only for Hollywood, but for foreign and independent cinema as well. Additionally, for much of the year (January-October) the few stand out films were usually about topics such as depression, isolation, or grief. If there were one recurring theme at the movies this year, I would say it was grief.
From the critically acclaimed Manchester by the Sea, to Natalie Portman’s showcase vehicle Jackie, to Martin Scorsese’s highly anticipated Silence, to the young adult fantasy A Monster Calls, to the riveting sci-fi film Arrival, to the powerful documentary Tower, to Terrence Davies’ poetic Sunset Song, to Terrence Malick’s meditative Knight of Cups, to the disturbing indie thriller The Invitation, and to Will Smith’s acting packed Oscar bait project Collateral Beauty, grief, suffering, loss, and the ways which we deal with those things permeated cinema this year. Even the Oscar frontrunner and throwback to uplifting old school musicals, La La Land, is tinged with themes of loss and regret.
Naturally, there were a few bright, hope filled films such as Whit Stillman’s hilarious Jane Austen adaptation Love & Friendship and Steven Spielberg’s magical fantasy full of childlike wonder, The BFG.
I’m not equally fond of all the above films. Some of them you will see below; others will not be here. While much of the year I admittedly wondered whether my top ten would look respectable, in the last few months, several great filmmakers came through and delivered powerful, accomplished works of art that challenged and moved me tremendously, showing the power of art to transform and inspire, and I’m happy to share those. Feel free to share your favorite films of 2016 in the comments.
Good Films Worth Noting (35-22):
Loving; Sully; The Shallows; Hacksaw Ridge; Queen of Katwe; Kubo and the Two Strings; Little Men; Moonlight; Doctor Strange; Pete’s Dragon; The BFG; Hail, Caesar!; Elle; Kate Plays Christine
21. 13th (Ava DuVernay) – This documentary about the mass incarceration and systematic discrimination against African Americans which originated with a loophole in the 13th Amendment is timely and powerful enough that it warrants expanding the honorable mentions by one slot.
20. The Young Messiah (Cyrus Nowrasteh) – As the title says, this thoughtful and meditative film portrays a possible year in the life of the child Jesus as his human nature comes to fully understand his divine nature. (full review)
19. Eye in the Sky (Gavin Hood) – Is drone warfare ever permissible and what if anything constitutes an acceptable collateral loss of life? Those questions are at the front of this engrossing drama with Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman. (full review)
18. Sing Street (John Carney) – Carney’s third musical may be his weakest, but it is still another testament to the power of music to transform lives. This time it’s vulnerable teenage protagonists who start a band, through which we see their desire for the way the world should be while acknowledging the far from perfect way it is.
17. A Monster Calls (J. A. Bayona) – “Stories are wild things” the tagline reads, and 12-year-old Connor learns how true that is as stories from a monster teach him to face the truth that about himself which he’s been denying since his mother’s cancer. (full review)
16. Arrival (Denis Villeneuve) – A brilliantly edited, hope filled sci-fi film full of mystery and wonder regarding the appearance of aliens and their pod-like spaceships, the film is a testament to the importance of communication with everyone, especially those we don’t know or with whom we disagree.
15. The Innocents (Anne Fontaine) – The first of two films on this list which explore God’s presence in the midst of suffering, The Innocents is about an horrific tragedy that forges an unlikely alliance between an atheist communist nurse and a convent of nuns in post-WWII Poland. The appalling nature of the tragedy results in some nuns losing their faith and others abusing their faith to rationalize equally horrific attempts to rectify the tragedy. However, the misfortunes and the alliance ultimately result in good, as the importance both of the vocation of the nuns and of the work of the nurse is affirmed. (full review)
14. Right Now, Wrong Then (Sang-soo Hong) – When a famous director visits a Korean city to give a lecture on one of his films, he arrives one day early, and a chance meeting with a fan plays out two different ways. With reversed title cards providing a sort of commentary on those two different ways, the first half showcases a bitter reality marred by manipulation, and the second half contrasts it with a desire to understand and respect one another, even as each character’s fundamental nature remains unchagned. An ingenious use of long takes and still frames creates a meditative point of view, reminiscent of any film director. (full review)
13. The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer) – A coming of age/sports/horror/fantasy film about a young girl who regularly works out in the boxing gym with her older brother but wishes to abandon that in order to take up dancing, the deliberate ambiguity of the title overshadows the film as tracking shots follow the young protagonist through a difficult transition of her life in which she desires to fit in with the others while fearing the strange illness which seems to affect them. The film walks the line between straightforward rite-of-passage drama and surrealism until the brilliant finale, which merges both with visual flair while maintaining the ever present ambiguity.
12. Jackie (Pablo Larraín) – As I said in my review, I fully acknowledge the many flaws in Jackie; however, this raw and messy portrayal of grief about Jackie Kennedy coping with the immediate aftermath of her husband’s assassination is strangely powerful. Director Pablo Larraín’s constant unconventional cinematic choices along with the non-linear structure and quiet moments of grace make Jackie a riveting, visceral, and deeply humanizing portrayal of the former first lady, helmed by what may be Natalie Portman’s best work of her career, with a strong supporting cast as well. (full review)
11. Tower (Keith Maitland) – A mostly animated documentary, with bits of historical footage and live interviews used sparingly and powerfully, Tower recreates the first school shooting in the USA via rotoscoping. It is devastating, difficult to watch, and ultimately full of hope. Focusing on the simple acts of heroism and the ways which a community came together to support one another, the film powerfully recreates the 96 minutes of terror, placing the viewer alongside police officers, students, victims, and survivors. Additionally, the near removal of the shooter from the story and the focus on beautiful acts of courage and compassion underscores the ability of art to heal a broken world.
The Top Ten
10. Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt) – What do the lives of three separate women have in common? At a first glance, not much, as the three chapters of writer/director Kelly Reichardt’s film chronicle the everyday struggles of four seemingly unrelated women. As those women, Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart, and Lily Gladstone all give stellar performances as strikingly different characters, but the three short stories which comprise the film highlight the similarities among all of them. As we watch them resolutely deal with work related conflicts, try to live up to others’ expectations, and face subtly ingrained sexism, their common humanity shines through beautifully. Reichardt never fails to challenge the viewer’s expectations and assumptions, and her use of the cold Montana landscape is gorgeous as each segment takes us closer the vast expansive freedom offered by those mountains.
9. Love & Friendship (Whit Stillman) – Whit Stillman’s affinity for Jane Austen was made clear in his debut film Metropolitan. With Love & Friendship, he adapts her novella Lady Susan into a joyful and infectiously funny period piece. As Lady Susan Vernon, Kate Beckinsale effortlessly embodies the conceited, manipulative protagonist who has spent so much of her life rationalizing her schemes that she can utter statements like, “Facts are horrid things,” while viewing herself as an innocent victim who’s always in the right. When she moves in with her in-laws to find a husband for her daughter while allowing rumors of her adulterous improprieties to die down, she simultaneously resolves to woo and humiliate her sister-in-law’s brother as revenge against a perceived slight. Lady Susan naturally sees no irony in her actions, and her small echo chamber of devotees (primarily Chloë Sevigny) continually tell her she’s absolutely right, but the genuine love and friendship exhibited by the other characters is a stark contrast to Lady Susan, and Stillman writes and films their interactions at refreshing buoyant pace that is a delight from beginning to end.
8. The Edge of Seventeen (Kelly Fremon Craig) – A morbidly offbeat comedy that may not be to everyone’s taste, The Edge of Seventeen exuberates compassion and sympathy for its flawed yet loveable characters. Seventeen year old Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) is perhaps more of a drama queen than the average high school student, but she has suffered some excruciatingly painful losses, with which she never came to terms. Her feelings of depression and isolation reach a peak when her best (and only) friend begins dating her older brother. As she lashes out at most people in her life, the film refuses to whitewash her mistakes, but it also never abandons portraying her with empathy, especially as personified by her acerbic history teacher (Woody Harrelson). The witty sarcastic banter between the two of them is delightful, and it also conveys an unorthodox way of listening and caring for someone who needs help. (full review)
7. Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie) – Hell or High Water demands at least two viewings to fully appreciate all the meticulous craftsmanship that went into it. From the first scene, images are loaded with meaning, as the camera pans over a graffitied protest against the recent bank bailouts while veterans are losing their homes. As a story of injustices about changing times and losing one’s way of life due to corporate policies, not only are Chris Pine and Ben Foster’s bank robbing brothers trying to preserve what they have always known, but so is Jeff Bridges’ Texas Ranger, who throws himself into this last case of his, partially out of duty and partially as an attempt to put off his looming retirement. The crosscutting is absolutely perfect, whether to contrast the lawmen with the robbers, the brothers with each other, or to build tension for the final robbery and chase. The entire cast makes Taylor Sheridan’s droll dialogue crackle with life and wit, and Sheridan does a brilliant job of shifting our sympathies from character to character, making it so no one is purely a villain or a hero. The result is a nontraditional Western that brilliantly subverts the genre, while acknowledging the tragedy of the cycle of violence instigated by greed and rationalizations.
6. Our Little Sister (Hirokazu Koreeda) – A wonderfully gentle and life-like film, Our Little Sister chronicles the ordinary, daily life of three sisters who agree to adopt their younger half-sister when they learn of their father’s death. Even though their father abandoned them years ago to run off with another woman, the sisters cannot deny the bonds of family which extend to thirteen year old Suzu (Suzu Hirose) who has now lost both her parents. As the film shows all four sisters adjusting to a new life together, the compassion, love, and occasional awkwardness displayed make for a truly beautiful work of art that builds to a wonderful climax of forgiveness and grace. Like last year’s Brooklyn, this is the sort of conflict free film about wholesome endearing characters whose lives I would happily follow for five hours, as we glance through a window into a different culture, yet see actions and emotions which unite us all.
5. The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook) – Every film critic has a short list of movies that he loves but would recommend to absolutely no one. The Handmaiden is such a film for me. Featuring stellar performances, perfect editing, gorgeous art direction, and entrancing cinematography, the story is so disturbing and graphic that despite my love for the film, I do not recommend it to any casual viewer. When a professional thief recruits a naive assistant (Tae-ri Kim) to help him marry and then institutionalize a rich heiress (Min-hee Kim) so he can steal her fortune, the stage is set for a Hitchcockian thriller with elaborate deceptions and double-crossings; but underneath the sinister scheming, the film’s focus is on the two women, both of whom have been victimized and objectified by more powerful men all their lives. Their relationship at the center of the film serves as powerful catalyst for the women to claim their own identities, which culminates not only in several brilliant plot twists, but also in the destruction of a library of pornography – both a symbolic and literal prison.
4. Paterson (Jim Jarmusch) – This is a film about joy, the joy of Adam Driver playing a bus driver named Paterson who lives and works in Paterson, NJ. The joy of writing love poems about matches, the joy of listening to your wife’s dreams, the joy of a cameo of two actors from one your favorite movies. Jarmusch’s thoroughly delightful film follows a week in the title character’s life, focusing on his daily encounters, beginning with his wife Laura, ending with the local bartender, and punctuated throughout the day by passengers, pedestrians, his English bulldog Marvin, and his melancholic coworker. In his spare time Paterson keeps a notebook that he fills with poems, some of them love poems, others observations about the daily happenings. Naturally some days are better than others, but regardless of what misfortune or blessings Paterson receives, the sun rises and sets every day, and Jarmusch captures both with an optimistic sense of humor and pathos not only for the titular bus driver, but for the oddball characters he encounters as well.
3. Cameraperson (Kirsten Johnson) – I confess, when I first heard of Cameraperson, I was skeptical that it would be as good as the raves I had heard. It was better. Compiled purely from unused footage that cameraperson Kirsten Johnson shot for documentaries over her career, the film reveals the secret life of cinematographers. As we watch the scenes that never made it into the finished movies, we see the relationships she forms with each of her subjects, always treating them as people regardless of what decision they are making. We see the spontaneous moments of joy, such as berry picking on the mountains of Bosnia or a Nigerian midwife starting a newborn baby’s heart. We also the see the first hand ability of cinematographers to raise awareness of grave injustices from the Bosnian genocide to the attacks on the World Trade Center to the practices at Guantanamo Bay. Regardless of what Johnson is filming, her attention to detail and capturing truth and beauty all comes through in her brilliant editing that makes the film infinitely watchable.
2. The Witch (Robert Eggers) – With The Witch, first time feature director and writer Robert Eggers has crafted a modern horror masterpiece that offers no easy answers as it explores the dangers and tragedy of rigid fundamentalism that despairs of the mercy of God. Set in Puritan New England, the film is deeply unsettling in the way it recreates the mentality of the sixteenth century and asks the viewer to accept that worldview along with the fears which motivated the witch trials. When a strictly fundamentalist family is exiled and forced to set up a farm on the edge of the woods, the family’s infant son soon afterward disappears, and the question of whether only a witch or something else in addition is terrorizing the family hangs over the film with brilliant dread and tension. The most horrific aspect of the film is not the presence of the demonic entity, but the destruction of the family though fear, despair, and the misuse of religion, the toll of which is most clearly shown on the eldest daughter, (Anya Taylor-Joy) whose inability to navigate her coming of age adds a powerful sense of tragedy to the horror. (full review)
1. Silence (Martin Scorsese) – There are few things more endearing to a film critic than a highly anticipated film delivering all that one hoped it would. After reading Endo’s powerful and devastating novel last January, I eagerly waited to see if Scorsese could pull off his long planned adaptation. For the first half of the film, Scorsese’s reverence for the novel was clearly apparent, and his recreation of imperial Japan was beautiful and haunting. During the second half, the best of his filmmaking skills shine through, and the mounting tension in each confrontation between Fr. Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and his Japanese inquisitors makes for some of the most compelling cinema of the year. As a portrait of a dark night of the soul, the film treats its central question with solemn dignity, and the climax is every bit as challenging here as it was in the book, reminding us that whatever choice we make when we feel abandoned, God is right there alongside us. (full review)
Year of release: 2016 Directed by Martin Scorsese. Starring Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Issei Ogata, Yôsuke Kubozuka, Shin’ya Tsukamoto, Tadanobu Asano, Ciarán Hinds, and Liam Neeson.
I tried to avoid spoilers, but it’s really hard to discuss Silence without referencing the climactic act. However, I remained as vague as possible, but consider this a mild spoiler warning.
Ever since I read Shusaku Endo’s literary masterpiece Silence last January, one question that has haunted me is: what would I have done had I been in Rodrigues’ place at the story’s climax? It’s a question I still don’t know the answer to, and one which any attentive reader of the novel will be forced to grapple with for some time. One of the highest compliments I can pay to Scorsese’s film adaptation is that it treats that question with the same amount of gravitas as the book does, and it forces the viewer to wrestle with his or her answer to it in the same way.
After releasing The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988, an Episcopalian bishop introduced Scorsese to the novel Silence, and shortly thereafter Scorsese fell in love with it, and he has wanted to adapt it into a film since then. The wait was worth it. Scorsese’s love and admiration of the source material shines through in every frame. There is hardly a sentence from the book which is not translated onto the screen. If there were an award for most painstakingly, laboriously faithful adaptation of a novel, I’d be hard pressed to think of a better candidate than Scorsese’s Silence, a few small changes aside.
When Jesuit missionaries Fr. Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Fr. Garupe (Adam Driver) learn of a rumor that their beloved mentor Fr. Ferreira (Liam Neeson) apostatized in Nagasaki after three days of torture, they refuse to believe it. They implore their superior (Ciarán Hinds) to go to Japan and learn the truth themselves. Shortly thereafter, they embark on their mission to the land of the rising sun, where in their search for Ferreira they will minister to the covert Christian communities, evade the local authorities hunting for priests, and ultimately have their faith tested in way they cannot imagine.
That test of faith is primarily shown through Rodrigues’ perspective, and the letters he sends back to his superior ask one of the questions at the heart of Endo’s novel: where is God in the midst of terrible suffering and isolation? As Garfield narrates the letters via voiceover, it begins to appear he is not only addressing them to his superior, but also to God. Notably, as Peter T. Chattaway said at Arts & Faith, when Rodrigues finally hears the voice of Christ, it sounds very much like that voice is provided by Ciarán Hinds.
As I suppose should be expected, there have been Christian viewers balking at the outcome of Rodrigues’ test of faith in Silence. However, even though the film is slightly less ambiguous than the book regarding that outcome, it is anything but a celebration of Rodrigues’ act. While the test itself may seem trivial to a non-Christian – stepping on a fumie (an image of Christ to be trampled to prove one does not hold the image as sacred, and is therefore not Christian), the following consequences for a priest who did so would be that he was then be paraded as an example to make other Christians lose their faith.
Naturally, why any priest would denounce his faith, or anyone with strong core beliefs would renounce them, is a question that should challenge viewers of any religious background, forcing them to ask when and why they would abandon their principle, identifying beliefs, if ever. In the case of Silence, it must be noted that the Japanese inquisitors were exceptionally cruel in their method of torture. As Steven D. Greydanus observed in his review:
“‘Smite the shepherd,’ wrote the prophet Zechariah, ‘and the sheep will be scattered.’ Not only have the Japanese inquisitors learned this lesson, they’ve also learned an insidious inverse principle: To break the shepherd, smite the sheep.”
As the grand inquisitor Inoue (an outstanding Issei Ogata) casually mentions to Rodrigues, initially the Japanese officials made the mistake of torturing priests, but that only strengthened their resolve, since many of them envisioned a glorious martyr’s death. However, forcing the priests to watch helplessly as other Christians were tortured produced the desired results.
The desire to be a martyr is universal, and it affects people of all religious backgrounds, or even none at all, as a way to validate the righteousness of their cause. At one point a Japanese translator (Tadanobu Asano) assigned to assist Rodrigues remarks in Japanese that Rodrigues is as arrogant as all the other Jesuits, and he will fall like all of them did. That translator later states an even greater tragic irony regarding the priests who apostatize: they came to Japan for the fame and glory of missionary work, and they receive that fame as apostate priests.
Arrogance is certainly a flaw of Rodrigues’, but how much it plays into his final decision is debatable. What is not debatable is that regardless of the rightness or wrongness of Rodrigues’ climactic act, God is right there suffering alongside him.
As Rodrigues, Garfield conveys the moral certainty of the self-righteous when things are easy, and his shift to a tormented and confused soul in the midst of suffering is flawless as each confrontation with the inquisitors breaks his spirit a little more. As the Chief Inquisitor Inoue, Issei Ogata is perfect as he fluctuates between geniality and menace with a comic air of disliking the whole unnecessary but harmless procedure. Adam Driver captures the firm resolve and strictness of Garupe; and as Ferreira, Neeson’s portrayal of a tortured, conflicted soul is effortlessly conveyed through his facial expressions and halting line delivery.
Scorsese himself is at the top of his game. For the first half of the film, he creates an immersive Japanese landscape while demonstrating his affinity for the novel. Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography is gorgeous and inviting, but at the same time slightly formidable and intimidating, much like the Japanese culture itself. The use of God point-of-view shots happens at crucial moments along Rodrigues’ journey, so the audience never forgets that God is not silent, even if He appears to be.
During the second half of the film, Scorsese’s prowess as a filmmaker is at the forefront. Each confrontation between Rodrigues and the Japanese is staged with increased tension, interjected with moments of dry humor and unexpected violence, which is as tragic and shocking as it should be. Scorsese may continue his habit of extending films beyond their natural ending point, but the final shot he crafts is so powerful, I’m easily inclined to forgive him for ten extra minutes of runtime.
In addition to the question of God’s presence in the midst of suffering, there is another question which has haunted me ever since I first viewed Silence. That is: which character are we supposed to identify with? I believe the answer to that is not the protagonist.
At one point, Rodrigues is chided that he likes to compare his suffering to Jesus’ in the Garden of Gethsemane, but there are countless others who are suffering even more, and they don’t have the arrogance to compare themselves to Christ. It’s a damning line, and one that’s hard to forget, because as I said above, many Christians like to envision themselves as martyrs and see their own sufferings as making them Christ-like. While it’s unquestionably true that we can and should offer our sufferings to God, it’s also true that we make the same mistakes and trample on His mercy again and again. With that in mind, the character from Silence all of us probably have the most in common with is the dirty, cowardly everyman Kichijiro.
Played by Yôsuke Kubozuka, Kichijiro is a thorn in Fr. Rodrigues’ side, a Judas to his Christ. Throughout the film Rodrigues reflects on Christ’s words to Judas: “What you will do, do quickly.” However, as in the novel, Rodrigues begins to question whether that line was spoken in anger or in love. The answer in the film is hinted at earlier than in the novel, but the final affirmation of it occurs at the same powerful moment.
After wrestling with this film for three weeks, what I ultimately take away from it is that it’s a movie about love. In A Man For All Seasons, Thomas More says to his daughter shortly before his execution, “Finally, it’s not a matter of reason…finally, it’s a matter of love.” Regardless of whether one interprets Rodrigues’ final action as an act of love or an act of betrayal or both, what the film makes unmistakably clear is God’s love for us, that He was born into this world to demonstrate that love, and it never abandons us, even when we abandon Him as many times as Kichijiro apostatizes, which may to our limited understanding appear unreasonable.
To quote my friend Joshua Wilson:
“To identify with Kichijiro means to admit that we commit the same failings again and again. But Rodrigues scorned him and looked down on his weakness. Ultimately that was where he failed to identify with Christ, who comes to us in our weakness and only when he himself had been broken of that pride could he find where Jesus’ voice was in the silence.”
Pride certainly led to Rodrigues’ downfall, but that downfall was also his moment of salvation when he truly learned how to love a wretched, broken, ugly human being which so many of us inherently despise – as Rodrigues himself did for much of the film, when he begrudgingly heard Kichijiro’s repeated confessions.
For a film which is itself an act of love for Endo’s literary masterpiece on Scorsese’s part, not only did Silence shed new light for me on a powerful text, it also provided a stunning realization of Christ’s love for all of us, even when we abandon Him, a love we often only encounter in the silence.
Personal recommendation: A
Content Advisory: Spiritually ambiguous themes, non-graphic but intense scenes of torture and violence. MPAA Rating: R
Suggested Audience: Mature teens and up.